Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The decline of the full time retail worker 

I'm mildly surprised that the news of WalMart's new flexible scheduling hasn't been a bigger piece of news. (subscriber link to WSJ; freebie at WakeUpWalMart.) Scheduling done by a computer -- the same one that Target uses to schedule 350,000 workers nationwide in six hours -- will increase profitability but makes workers' lives a little more stressful.

Employer-employee contracts entail a good bit of risk-sharing; one of the risks is the risk of the business not having customers when workers are scheduled. When employers bear that risk, part of the cost is borne by employees in lower wages. Thus, if the flexible schedules are burdensome to employees of WalMart the firm should find it costs more to keep productive workers -- other firms that do not use flexible scheduling will be able to attract your best workers by agreeing to take the risk that those workers will find not enough to do on a slow Thursday night, for example. Paradoxically, something that is harmful to workers will lead to higher wages at WalMart as the workers claw back some of the gains in productivity that the new software produces.

If it does not, it will be because flexible scheduling is not burdensome to WalMart's workers. For the part-timers who work there after school -- teens -- that might be true.

In an earlier article while WalMart was still experimenting with the idea, the National Retail Foundation's Daniel Butler is quoted:
Until the late 1970s and 80s, people shopped more on weekdays. Then with more two-income households, people were shopping more at night and on weekends. That changed the demand for full-time workers. Until the mid-90s the full-time, part-time ratio was 60-40. Now its more 40-60.
That trend is likely to continue, and as that time might be more variable, the need for this software and the scheduling it does has increased.